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Rundlet-May House (1807)

Comfort, convenience, early innovations (Portsmouth, New Hampshire)

Merchant James Rundlet and his wife Jane built their home on a terraced rise and filled it with the finest furnishings available. It was both an urban showplace and home for the Rundlets’ large family. Rundlet-May House shows four generations of family possessions, ranging from original 1807 wallcoverings and furniture to twentieth-century additions by the Rundlets’ great-grandchildren.

James Rundlet equipped his home with the latest technologies. The kitchen boasts both a Rumford roaster and a Rumford range, as well as a set kettle and an elaborate venting system that services a smoke room on the third floor. There is an early coal-fired central heating system and an indoor well. The gardens retain their original layout with plantings that were popular during the Colonial Revival period.

Historic New England has launched a series of digital visitor experiences featuring never-before-seen videos, new photography, oral histories, and archival material, including Rundlet-May House.

Plan Your Visit

Location

364 Middle Street
Portsmouth, N.H. 03801

EXPLORE DIGITAL TOURS

Days & Hours

First and third Saturdays
June – October 15

Tours start half past the hour
11:30 AM – 2:30 PM

Admission

$15 adults
$13 seniors
$7 students

Free for Historic New England members.

Accessibility

Tour involves standing, walking, and stairs. Visitors with limited mobility may be able to enjoy a first floor tour of the house and grounds. Visitors can access a virtual tour of the museum from their own digital device onsite. Folding chairs are provided for visitors who would like to use them while on tour. The site is not equipped with ramps, elevators, or lifts and there is no air-conditioning. Service animals are welcome. We are happy to work with you to make your visit an enjoyable one and we encourage visitors with questions or requests to call ahead.

Directions

Take I-95 to Exit 7 toward downtown (Market Street). Bear right after the railroad tracks. Turn right onto Deer Street. Turn left onto Maplewood Avenue. In three blocks, follow the right curve onto Middle Street. Rundlet-May House is three blocks down on the right.

Parking

There is ample street parking on Middle Street.

Public Transportation

C&J Trailways provides bus service from Boston and the North Shore to Portsmouth. The Coast Bus can be used to travel within the Seacoast area.

Contact Information

Rundlet-May House Exterior

Rundlet-May House is located on Middle Street just outside Portsmouth's busy commercial district.

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  • Rundlet-May House Exterior

    Rundlet-May House is located on Middle Street just outside Portsmouth's busy commercial district.

  • Front Parlor

    For their front parlor, James and Jane Rundlet chose an imported peach damask wallpaper that remains on the wall today.

  • Kitchen

    The house features the era's most innovative tools for cooking and heating, as displayed by this complete Rumford Roaster and Range.

  • Scullery

    Rundlet-May House was built with a scullery, a place for household staff to complete tasks like food preparation, laundry, and washing.

  • Parlor Chamber

    Jane and James Rundlet had thirteen children. Although most survived to reach adulthood, only four outlived their father, who died in 1852.

  • James and Ralph May's Study

    The third-floor study, used first by James Rundlet May, James Rundlet’s grandson, abounds with the personal items of Rundlet and May men.

Rocky ocean shoreline in foreground sun setting in the backgroundPassataquack

According to archeologists’ accounts, Indigenous people have been in this region for 13,000 years. The Indigenous associated with Portsmouth were called the Passataquack, a tribe of the Pawtucket Confederacy. They are part of a larger group of people who called themselves Wabanaki or “People of the First Light.” Portsmouth’s Piscataqua River was the gateway into a network of waterways that the region’s Wabanaki people relied on for trade, fishing, and hunting. The river’s name, a Wabanaki term, refers to the branches of the river as it spreads out – “the place where the river divides.” The Passataquack living in the region grew corn, beans, and squash but much of what they consumed came from the river. To this day some historic Indigenous fishing weirs continue to operate in the Piscataqua watershed such as the one located in Newmarket on the Lamprey River. Early engagements between Indigenous and European colonists led to widespread illness and death from old world diseases. A 1633 colonial government report makes this clear: “This infectious disease [the small-pox] spread to Pascataquack, where all the Indians (except one or two) died.” Over the ensuing decades, the surviving members of the tribe created new alliances and acquired greater immunity to these diseases.

Conflict between Indigenous people and the colonists in this area began in the 1670s, in part because of the mills that had been setup on the rivers, blocking fish migration and powering the saws that turned trees into marketable timber. Thus, Indigenous people of the region often targeted these sites when they engaged in warfare. The main conflicts in this region lasted until the 1720s. The 1713 Treaty of Portsmouth signed in Portsmouth did not mark the end of hostilities since the colonists reneged on many of their promises within the treaty. While the Wabanaki connected with each other throughout New England via waterways, they also had well-worn paths created over millennia as they engaged in trade and moved between different fishing sites. Today many of these paths have become major highways in the area.

In the 1700s, colonists increasingly populated the area, which saw increased agrarian development of the land, expansion of lumber and the exportation of natural resources harvested from the region, the establishment of shipyards and ports along the river basin, and the growth incorporation of towns and cities. Portsmouth, the capital before and after the Revolutionary War, became the primary market town of the seacoast region. The development of Portsmouth continued through the 1800s and into the early 1900s, transforming the coastal region and displacing Indigenous communities from their ancestral lands and waterways.

Despite rapid development of the area, Indigenous people in Maine and New Hampshire continue to call the region home. They belong to a number of Wabanaki tribes, sharing their history through publications and public events.

Exterior view of Rundlet-May House, Portsmouth, N.H.

Exterior view of Rundlet-May House, Portsmouth, N.H.

Planning and Construction

Records abound from the planning and construction of Rundlet-May House. The archive of material includes a building schedule, bills paid to workmen for materials, and other accounts. The records fall into two major categories: labor and materials. The accounts even show how much was spent on rum for the workmen: $186.75. The latter gives us a full picture of the house’s construction from start to finish, including the plan for the landscape. James Rundlet chooses pear and poplar trees, grapevines, and rose bushes for his extensive garden. These records allow us to reconstruct the cost of material and labor to build a fine house in the Federal Period.

Perhaps the most persistent question is who designed the house. There is no record of design plans or the individual responsible. However Rundlet’s personal interest in buildings is evidenced by the books in his library, the fact that he designed at least one shop facade, purchased drawing paper in 1807 (the year before construction began), and sold builders’ guides in 1809 when his family was nicely settled in their new home. These pieces of evidence lead historians to believe that Rundlet may well have designed the house himself.

1-janeandjamesrundletsilhouettes_historyJames Rundlet

James Rundlet built his house at age thirty-five. He married Jane Hill Rundlet, with whom he had thirteen children, seven of which were born before the family moved to the new house in 1808. James Rundlet was a native of Exeter, New Hampshire, and the son of a yeoman farmer. He attended the newly formed Phillips Academy in Exeter at age twelve. He moved to Portsmouth in 1794 to become a businessman and made a fortune as a merchant and manufacturer. Upon his arrival in Portsmouth in 1794, Rundlet tried his hand at the dry goods trade and eventually focused on textiles. Invoices surviving from 1802 detail the overwhelming variety of fabrics that were purchased and sold by Rundlet. They include fine velveteen and lace and also more common fabrics like flannel and baize. Rundlet operated a textile shop in downtown Portsmouth, where another import shop still operates today. Rundlet did not engage in the shipping aspect of trade, owning two ships for only two years in 1814 and 1815.

The War of 1812 proved a boon for James Rundlet. Like many New England merchants, the scarcity of British products and resulting higher prices proved profitable for the merchant, who sold to a largely New England-based clientele. Perhaps most notable is that Rundlet was awarded the contract to provide the United States government with cloth to make soldiers’ uniforms. After beginning his career in sales, the War of 1812 turned Rundlet into a successful manufacturer. In the years during the War of 1812, Rundlet earned between $15,000 and $18,000 per year, a significant portion of his vast wealth.

In 1814, he was instrumental in the development of a woolen mill in Amesbury, Massachusetts. The Amesbury mill produced both cloth for the Army and for commercial use. In this endeavor, Rundlet worked with John Langdon Jr., the nephew of New Hampshire Governor John Langdon. Rundlet even describes the product in his diary: “these worthinetts are an article of my own manufacture and are an excellent article for Gentlemen’s summer coats and trousers, or for childrens wear, being very light and cool yet having the appearance of a mixt cassimere at a little distance…” In 1817 President Madison honored Rundlet with a visit and, according to Rundlet, he was “very much pleased with the whole establishment, particularly so… with the quality of the wool.”

By 1823 Rundlet turned his attention to the tiny village of Salmon Falls, now Rollinsford, New Hampshire, and established a woolen mill there.

By age forty-seven Rundlet had steadily turned his profits into investments, rather than continue active trade. This was a common trend for businessmen in the Northeast during the early nineteenth century. Rundlet owned many small house lots throughout Portsmouth in addition to his home and three shops. He maintained approximately one third of his income in real estate. He also invested in banks. James Rundlet was the tenth highest taxpayer in Portsmouth in 1815. The money he amassed in the early nineteenth century kept him at the top of the tax bracket until his death in 1852.

Rundlet was up on the latest in heating and cooking technologies, which is amply demonstrated in his house. The kitchen was fitted with a complete Rumford range and roaster. Benjamin Thompson, known as Count Rumford, revolutionized the way we heat and cook, and James Rundlet was one of the first Americans to test his inventions. Rundlet also included a scullery in which he ordered a set-kettle for boiling large quantities of water. The house was equipped with three different water sources. Rundlet’s was one of the few private homes to hook into the Portsmouth aqueduct system, which proved unreliable. To ensure access to fresh water, Rundlet also had an attached well-house and a large cistern that collected rain water in the basement. By the 1830s, the Rundlet family enjoyed a forced hot air heating system. The attached outbuilding complex housed farm animals, possibly workers’ quarters, potting sheds, and other spaces used for supporting the large Rundlet family. The house and grounds were self-sufficient and able to support the family and their staff with little help from the outside.

James Rundlet adorned his house with imported English wallpapers. The peach damask pattern he chose for the parlor remains on the walls today. During his lifetime, James Rundlet amassed a fortune, resources his family lived on for generations.

Rundlet Children

Louisa Catherine Rundlet, a younger daughter, married Hartford-born Savannah merchant George May in 1840. After George May’s early death in 1858, Louisa Catherine May returned to her childhood home with her own two children. Her twins, James and Jane May, named for her parents, grew up in Rundlet-May House. Portraits of Louisa and George, and many of George’s family, are displayed in the house.

Louisa’s brother, Dr. Edward Rundlet, also stayed in the house, running his medical practice from home. Like his father, Edward attended Phillips Academy in Exeter. He received his medical degree from Harvard University in 1829. It is possible that he conducted his practice in the back parlor, most recently used as a dining room, which is accessible by a semi-private entrance. There is some evidence that Edward also engaged in merchant activities, but spent most of his long life practicing medicine from his father’s home.

The eldest two girls, Harriet and Caroline, never married and never left their childhood home. In 1830, at ages thirty-five and thirty-two respectively, they and their father were described:

And just by the Bank, I see two wending this way,

They are both very Beauteous, and seem very gay;

Oh: tis Caro and Harriet who bloom up in town,

Whose father possesses, bothe wealth and renown.

James R. and Mary Ann Morrison May

James Rundlet May, son of Louisa Catherine May, never left his childhood home. Like his Uncle Edward, James was a doctor, practicing out of the family home. During his and his wife Mary Ann’s occupancy, the house changed little. The Mays updated carpets and upholstery, but their mark is most noticed in the garden. James created a graveyard for the family’s many pets on the south edge of the property. Mary Ann, while maintaining James Rundlet’s original pathways and flower beds, updated some of the flower varieties by adding the peonies, tiger lilies, pinks, and roses popular with her generation. She also added the spiral trellises that remain on the grounds today.

10-ralphmayandhisdogundatedRalph and Gladys May

Ralph May (pictured) and his wife Gladys used Rundlet-May House as a summer retreat for much of their occupancy. In keeping with the Colonial Revival trend, the couple embraced their family history and decorated the home with James Rundlet’s furniture, family portraits, and decorative arts. They kept the peach damask wallpaper hung by James Rundlet when the house was built. Ralph, who was born in his mother’s childhood home, which had since become the Portsmouth Historical Society, was a dedicated scholar who wrote many short poems, essays, and histories of his hometown.

His interest in history led to a connection with Historic New England, then the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. He deeded the house to Historic New England in1971.

Becoming a Museum

Rundlet-May House represents four generations of one family, the Rundlets and Mays, who continuously occupied the space. Visitors to the site see James Rundlet’s Rumford roaster next to Ralph May’s General Electric range, and an eighteenth-century inkwell above a cable television outlet. The contents of the house reflect the changing aesthetics and values of four generations. The house challenges us to identify the changes, both technological and decorative, and develop an understanding of when and why they occurred.

Collections on Display

Silhouettes of Jane Hill Rundlet and James Rundlet

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Portrait of Louisa Catherine Rundlet May

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Girandole

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Property FAQs

Find out about group tours, dog walking, photography policy, and more.

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  • Can I park at the museum? Is there street parking?

    There is no public parking on the Rundlet-May House property. There is plenty of unmetered parking on the street.

  • Do we need to take a tour or can we just look around?

    All visitors to the house receive a guided tour.

  • Can I take photographs at the museum?

    Interior and exterior photography for personal use is allowed at Historic New England properties. For the safety and comfort of our visitors and the protection of our collections and house museums, we ask that you be aware of your surroundings and stay with your guide. Video, camera bags, tripods and selfie sticks are not permitted. Professional/commercial photographers and members of the media should visit the press room for more information.

  • How can I book a group tour? What is the cost?

    The cost for a group tour of eight or more is $1 off the regular admission price. Call 603-436-3205 or visit our Group Tours page.

  • Are dogs allowed on the property?

    Historic New England welcomes responsible pet owners to enjoy our grounds. Dogs must be on a leash and under control at all times. Dog waste must be picked up and properly disposed of, off the property.

  • How do I become a member of Historic New England and get more involved?

    Join Historic New England now and help preserve the region’s heritage. Call 617-994-5910 or join online.

  • Do you provide admission discounts for EBT cardholders?

    EBT cardholders from all fifty states can show their card for $2 admission to house tours for up to four guests per card.

Related to this Property

Visit nearby Jackson House in Portsmouth.

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Visit nearby Langdon House in Portsmouth.

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Explore the Rundlet-May House web app.

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